Born in 1819 in Huntington, Long Island, Walt Whitman grew up to become one of America's greatest, most progressive poets, not to mention arguably the patron saint of Brooklyn (there may not have been a Fort Greene Park without him). This year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the Morgan Library and Museum is celebrating with a wonderful new exhibit, Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy, which is filled with artifacts, early notebooks and other ephemera from throughout his life.
The exhibit, which is on display now through September 15th, traces the development of his writing and influence, "from his early days producing local journalism and sensational fiction to his later years writing the visionary poems that would revitalize American letters."
Among the highlights: there is his portraitist's copy of Leaves of Grass (1855) and the famous letter written to Whitman by Ralph Waldo Emerson commending that book. There are several handwritten poems in honor of the Civil War and its aftermath (including "O Captain! My Captain!"), as well as documents from other titanic writers such as Oscar Wilde, Hart Crane, Federico García Lorca and Allen Ginsberg, which trace Whitman's influence on the twentieth century.
Other fun artifacts, some of which you can see in the gallery up above, include an 1849 etching of the view Whitman would've had of Manhattan from his Brooklyn home; paintings of Long Island farmhouses like the one Whitman grew up in; a print of The New York Crystal Palace; Whitman's ticket to President Lincoln's funeral at Madison Square Theatre; a Whitman-branded cigar box; and even a taxidermied local bird that Whitman was particularly fond of.
"Walt Whitman's poetry occupies a special place in American literature," said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library and Museum. "He was a New Yorker in that he not only captured the spirit of his bustling, complex, and contradictory city, but he also carved out a career path for himself through his ambition and surprisingly proactive self-promotion. We are excited to offer more insight into his inspirations, his world, and the evolution of his dynamic voice."
The 200th anniversary of Whitman's birth has renewed a debate about racist comments Whitman made in his life, including referring to black people as "baboons." Poets and writers of color have long wrestled with Whitman's work—and his radically progressive idea of America as inclusive—for years. The Chicago Reader spoke to Whitman scholars about the context of Whitman's work in the 19th century:
Northwestern University professor Jay Grossman puts it this way: "Was Walt Whitman a racist? Absolutely. Was every single person in the 19th century a racist, compared with what we try to be in the 21st century? Absolutely. But what's interesting about Whitman, in his poetry, he's working incredibly hard to establish African-American humanity, at a time when that is the rare position.
"In the first couple editions of Leaves of Grass, there is a progressive, even radical, political edge. He's writing a kind of poetry that few people had seen before, a poetry that doesn't rhyme, isn't short lines, isn't fixed meter, is about topics you can't believe he's writing about. He's casting a wide net. Gender, sexuality, and race are all part of that."
What comes to mind for Grossman are the blood-brother lines from the slave-mart section of Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric": "Within there runs blood / The same old blood! the same red-running blood!"
The Morgan Library is located at 225 Madison Avenue. For hours & admission click here.